So in “No Strings Attached” we’ve got a former TV goofball and a former “Star Wars” decoration pretending to get it on like crazy, under the guidance of quasi-legendary comedy veteran Ivan Reitman. And “pretending” is definitely the right word. There’s an easygoing, lounging-around-in-sweat pants quality about “No Strings Attached” that makes me not hate it, and future Oscar nominee Natalie Portman and never-in-a-million-years Oscar nominee Ashton Kutcher are good sports about trying to deliver a contempo twist to the tired rom-com formula. We get to hear Portman shouting “Hey! Look at my dick!” and “This hole is my bitch!” (I’m not explaining why) and watch Kutcher stare mournfully into the middle distance, in total wounded-girl mode, while bad emo pop plays on the soundtrack.
But when people have sex in a movie — that wasn’t, you know, made in Hungary and meant to convince you that life is meaningless — isn’t it a good idea to make it seem kind of hot? Because on that score, “No Strings Attached” is a near-total failure. Sure, the premise is supposed to be that Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher) are longtime acquaintances who embark on a “sex friend” relationship that will be devoid of pet names, snuggling, emergency contact info or even breakfast. But their coupling lacks any physical or emotional spark — it’s Emma who tells a fellow resident at her L.A. hospital, “Look at the height difference! When I stand next to him it looks like he’s kidnapping me!” — and they come off more like cheerful workout partners or calculus-homework buds than like Mr. and Ms. Drop Your Panties Right Now.
In fact, despite the good-looking stars, the R rating and the so-called high concept, “No Strings Attached” has a lot more old-fashioned shtick than steam or sizzle. That shouldn’t be surprising from Reitman, who will one day find an honored place in movie-geek heaven as the director of “Ghostbusters” but has also produced or directed any number of mediocre airline-grade comedies, from “Legal Eagles” to “Dave” to “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” He’s never demonstrated any gift for romance or sexiness, and simply isn’t the guy to get something out of stars like Kutcher and Portman if it doesn’t come naturally. Both actors are fragile instruments, in different ways, and both are genially miscast here: Portman’s a delicate, diminutive beauty ill suited for this tough-gal doctor role, while Kutcher’s a suave charmer who’s asked to simulate the brooding, sensitive type.
Like I say, they’re good-natured about it, and do their best to roll with the supposedly wacky twists and turns of Elizabeth Meriwether’s script. Emma’s a medical intern too busy for a relationship, and Adam’s a frustrated production assistant on a slutted-out high-school musical TV series that makes “Glee” look like “Swann’s Way.” After he finds out that his dad, a former sitcom star played by the inimitable Kevin Kline, has hooked up with his ex-girlfriend, Adam spends a drunken evening calling every woman in his phone and saying things like, “Hey — you got someplace I could put my boner?” Emma evidently responds well to this overture, and after he wakes up butt-naked on her sofa, all is well until the fateful and inevitable day arrives when one of them wants something more.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say, and Hollywood execs and producers have recently heard the news that women are actually OK with casual sex, at least sometimes. “No Strings Attached” is at least the third of four recent or forthcoming casual sex-gone-awry comedies, after Drew Barrymore and Justin Long in “Going the Distance” and Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Love and Other Drugs,” but before Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in “Friends With Benefits.” I suppose one of these may connect with audiences eventually, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that younger viewers are bored with the rom-com formula and not fooled by efforts to update it for the “hookup generation.” (I thought the Hathaway-Gyllenhaal coupling was electric and often very funny, but “Love and Other Drugs” was trying to be seven kinds of movie at once, and the public stayed away.)
None of which is to say that “No Strings Attached” is a bad time, exactly, just because the alleged romantic and sexual centerpiece is kind of a snooze. Meriwether packs the movie with enjoyably odd supporting characters and amusing gags, and Reitman knows what to do with those. Both lead characters are surrounded by wisecracking posses who seem like more fun than Emma and Adam do, including onetime indie-film it-girls Greta Gerwig and Olivia Thirlby (as Emma’s best friend and sister, respectively), Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Jake Johnson as Adam’s comic Greek chorus, and Kline, who rescues a surprising amount of pathos from a thoroughly ridiculous caricature.
It all adds up to standard-issue Ivan Reitman product, meaning that it’ll make perfectly satisfactory basic-cable viewing in two or three years, so long as you never ask why you don’t have any feelings of lust or sympathy toward the main couple. I realized the central romantic theme was getting waterlogged around the time that Adam nearly hooks up with Lucy (Lake Bell), a producer on his TV show who’s been pining for him all along. Lucy’s meant to be neurotic, bespectacled comic relief, but she’s also smart and funny and tall and has legs that won’t quit, and Adam’s being an ass to ignore her and sit around mooning about teeny little Miss Porcelain Face. Right when Adam and Lucy are finally about to start snogging for real, his phone rings and she looks at the name on the screen and says, “Do Not Call Her is calling.” It’s a funny line and we’re supposed to feel happy, of course, but it was the one and only moment when “No Strings Attached” made me want to cry.